With partially hydrogenated oils’ (PHOs) GRAS status on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s chopping block, those in the baking industry who haven’t switched to alternative shortenings are going to have to make their move. Thankfully, fat suppliers have been pursuing trans-free solutions ever since FDA ruled that trans fatty acids must be declared on Nutrition Facts panels back in 2003.

“There are many choices out there for bakers right now that either are working or may simply need to be tailored a bit to fit a baker’s particular product,” noted Jeff Fine, PhD, vice-president, customer innovation, AAK USA, Edison, NJ.

While most of the baking industry has already made the switch, there are some who have resisted for a variety of reasons. Certain bakery products that rely heavily on PHOs for functionality such as icings or laminated doughs simply haven’t found an alternative that has made the switch worthwhile. According to Lynne Morehart, oils and shortenings R&D, Cargill, Wayzata, MN, these bakers can’t switch to a softer shortening because they need the function of the hard fats, but alternatives that provide functionality are not necessarily better from a nutritional standpoint. “That’s why you have a lot of those bakers with those applications saying, ‘There’s not a real need for me to exit out of what I’m using,’ ” she said.

Another reason bakers may have chosen not to move away from PHOs quite yet is because the amount of them in their finished product does not yield enough trans fat to require labeling. As a result, the added cost of reformulating for an alternative, not to mention the cost of the ingredient itself, is not worth it in the eyes of the baker. Yet, if GRAS status is revoked, PHOs in any capacity will no longer be allowed in foods and will force these bakers to fork over the extra time and money for substitutes.

The beauty of partial hydrogenation is the flexibility it provides in formulations. “PHOs have really good temperature and oxidative stability,” said Jim Robertson, category manager, emulsifiers, Corbion Caravan, Lenexa, KS. “Historically, fats have been manipulated in a multitude of ways based on their level of hydrogenation to provide the melting properties suitable for application, combined with the oxidative stability necessary to make it through the supply chain.”

Tailoring solutions

To replace all of that functionality and control requires bakers work closely with their shortening suppliers to find a PHO-free alternative that will deliver all the characteristics they need to maintain the quality consumers expect.  When the baking industry started looking at alternatives to PHO, it quickly realized there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. While shortening’s function may differ from application to application, it can also vary from bakery to bakery. While a certain PHO-free shortening may work in one baker’s cookie formulation and process, it might not deliver the same results in another’s. “There are just little idiosyncrasies in their process, tempering and the other ingredients going in with it, not to mention the finished product performance,” said Rick Cummisford, quality director, Columbus Vegetable Oils, Des Plaines, IL. In the wake of the ruling on trans fat, Columbus Vegetable Oils has gone from offering around a dozen shortening products to more than 70 just to keep up with this need.

“When there’s that much customization going on, what you need to have are base ingredients that are very flexible in how they can be used, and those base ingredients need to have that core functionality,” said Dave Dzisiak, Dow AgroSciences, Indianapolis. “Being able to dial in to a formulation to have trans-fat-free, low saturates and then having a good clean light taste — those are things you need to have to start with.”

Preparing for a trans-free world, shortening suppliers have a plethora of tools at their disposal. Palm oil, soybean oil, high-oleic vegetable oils and all the ways those can be separated and combined create a wide array of options. “Although palm oil is just a single natural product, it can be converted into an almost unlimited number of unique products using a physical process called fractionation,” said Gerald McNeill, PhD, vice-president of R&D, IOI Loders Croklaan, Channahon, IL. Whether using an oil or fat or relying on blending or interesterification, bakery R&D teams should be able to find solutions that can provide the functionality, eating characteristics, nutritional profile and machinability to bring even the most challenging applications into the PHO-free fold.

This mission, of course, requires open communication between bakers and their suppliers. Suppliers can’t deliver successful shortening replacements without knowing what the shortening will be expected to do. To help in this collaboration process, IOI Loders Croklaan offers its Creative Studio, a test kitchen and research lab where bakers can work with the company’s experts.

“ADM works with customers to customize oils that help meet goals for nutrition, functionality, flavor, labeling, economics and sustainability,” said Michelle Peitz, technical sales representative, oils, ADM, Decatur, IL. On top of its wide portfolio of ingredients, including soybean, canola, cottonseed and sunflower to coconut, palm and palm kernel as well as custom oil blends, the company also offers its team’s expertise and technology to bakers looking for shortening solutions.

Product developers will need to work closely with suppliers to address how non-PHO bakery fats impact dough rheology, nutrition, eating characteristics and machinability. “Bakers are used to seeing their doughs perform a certain way and expect their finished products to have certain characteristics,” AAK’s Dr. Fine said. “For any slight difference they may see with a PHO-free solution, some formulation or processing adjustments may be needed to bring the solution more in line with their expectations.”

Matching form to function

First and foremost, fat has an important role in any baked good, and it must play that role correctly, partial hydrogenation or not. “The big thing to start with is going back to the beginning of what the shortening is in the dough system for,” said Roger Daniels, vice-president, research, development and innovation, Stratas Foods, Memphis, TN. Shortening provides structure, the physical architecture of many baked goods. The layers in a croissant, the mouthfeel of icing, the structure of cake, the flakiness of pie dough — all of these depend on fats.

When customizing a PHO-free shortening for a product, the first thing bakers need to consider is what the fat needs to do in the formulation. This narrows which base oils the formulator will use by determining basic characteristics such as what form the shortening needs to take at room temperature.

For example, in the case of laminated products, temperature tolerance is critically important, Dr. McNeill ­explained. Shortening can’t become too brittle at low ­temperatures, or it will tear the dough. However, if it’s too soft at a high temperature, the dough layers will stick together.   Understanding those specific needs and challenges of an application, suppliers can formulate the shortening accordingly.

Moving from a liquid PHO to non-partially hydrogenated liquid oil is fairly easy, Ms. Morehart said. However, going from a solid partially hydrogenated fat to a liquid oil will yield many differences. “You’re changing how much air it’s able to pull in,” she said. “You’re changing the eating characteristics because the liquid will stay a liquid when the food cools off, so it will have a different bite.” For bakery applications that need that solid-at-room-temperature fat, she suggested starting with fats that are naturally solid at room temperature: palm oil, palm fractions and animal products.

Beyond structure, fat also impacts a product’s shelf life. The more oxidative stability a shortening has, the longer the product’s life span. “A lot of food products have relatively long shelf lives,” Mr. Robertson said. “You really need that oxidative stability to make the shortening and the ingredients made from PHO to make it through their supply chain and then used by the customer. Even then, you still need enough shelf life while the product sits on the grocery store shelf so that, when the consumer eats it, it doesn’t contain oxidized fat, which means off flavors.”

While alone, the base fats that create today’s PHO-free shortenings may not provide all the functionality necessary for baked goods, blending and interesterification can help stabilize otherwise unstable oils and draw out the capabilities bakers need.

Interesterification technology allows oil processors to rearrange the fatty acids of base oils on the glycerol backbone to create melting properties and functionalities similar to PHOs without the taboo hydrogenation. “Then you’ve got the advantages of long shelf life, trans fat free, reduced saturated fats, and you can make them cost effective,” Mr. Dzisiak said.

Facing labeling fears

When applied to fats, clean label is all about no PHOs and trans-fat-free, Dr. Fine explained. While suppliers have made great progress on eliminating both trans fats and PHOs, some solutions provide difficulties for nutrition and ingredient labels. When not relying on partial hydrogenation, formulators often must sacrifice high levels of saturates and their functionalities, which can also influence how a baker chooses their alternative fats.

“Health and wellness is certainly the driver in the food industry today,” Mr. Dzisiak said. Companies are looking to remove trans fat and partial hydrogenation while at the same time maintain the lowest level of saturated fat possible. While consumers may understand that baked goods like Danish and donuts may not be healthy foods, they do expect a fundamental level of wellness in their food. “It takes the fun out of it for consumers if they are aware of high levels of trans and saturated fats,” he said.

Balancing function and nutrition, however, can be difficult. For applications requiring a fat to be solid at room temperature, shortenings such as palm and animal fats that are naturally solid under those conditions may seem like the no-brainer answer. However, these solutions are high in saturated fat. To achieve this balance, interesterification or blending high-solids palm oil or palm fractions with other oils can bring down the saturated fat content to a more ­acceptable level. 

High-oleic oils such as Dow Agro­Sciences’ Omega-9 canola oil can provide that saturates-reducing power. “Typically what would involve using a couple different oils either by doing a physical blend or votation work or using a technique like interesterification to custom-design a certain shortening helps from a health perspective,” Mr. Dzisiak said. “The benefit is that the palm hard stock can bring the physical structure that’s required and then the Omega-9 canola is high in monounsaturates. You get stability and long shelf life, and you can make a significant reduction in saturated fat content.”

Corbion Caravan’s Trancendim is another building block that can help formulators create shortenings or margarines with better nutritional attributes when moving away from PHO. It is a functional ingredient whose unique properties allow it to be used in formulations designed to mimic the functional properties of PHO without the increase in saturated fat associated with the use of palm or interesterified shortenings. “Containing a unique ratio of saturated mono- and diglyceride, Trancendim modifies the crystallization properties of shortening and margarines to provide maximum structure at minimal saturated fat levels,” Mr. Robertson said.  “This allows formulators to remove PHOs and trans fats without making functional or quality sacrifices.”

Bunge Oils, St. Louis, uses its saturate-sparing technology to eliminate trans and reduce saturated fat. By using non-lipid ingredients, blending and crystallization processes, Bunge Oils reduces saturate levels by more than 40%. The company can also use palm-based solutions through blending techniques. In addition, it offers interesterified solutions combining fully hydrogenated fat with liquid oils to reach the consistency of PHOs without hydrogenation.

While the idea of full hydrogenation may seem worse than partial hydrogenation, this is a misconception. “Fully hydrogenated oils, being predominately saturated fat, are key components in formulations of 0 g trans per serving blends and shortenings,” Ms. Peitz said. Fully hydrogenated oils consist only of saturated fats with no trans fats, but the saturate level can be addressed by blending it with a liquid oil, she continued. While PHOs’ GRAS status may be currently in question, fully hydrogenated oils’ status is not.

These misconceptions are common and can cause a lot of issues when it comes to choosing ingredients. Both palm and interesterified oils can be red flags on a package to consumers. Palm oil carries with it some baggage on the sustainability front that may cause some consumers to think twice despite the fact that many of those concerns are actively being addressed. Currently, food manufacturers can label interesterified palm kernel oil as simply palm kernel oil, said Richard Galloway, president of Galloway & Associates, Isle of Pines, SC, and a consultant for Qualisoy, St. Louis. And while interesterified isn’t demonized yet, it isn’t one of those recognizable words consumers look for on their ingredient labels these days. “If FDA forces bakers to label that ingredient as interesterified oil, then they may have label problems,” he said. “Food executives don’t think the consumer wants to see that.”

Machining the fat

How a fat performs in a commercial bakery plant on automated equipment may not be top-of-mind when considering a shortening, but it isn’t something bakers should overlook. Partial hydrogenation creates a shortening with nice plasticity, Mr. Robertson explained, and that provides the eating properties consumers expect.

When bakers formulate away from PHO, there may be sacrifices in the plasticity, nutritional attributes, temperature stability or oxidative stability. “If you move from PHOs to palm oils for instance, not only will the saturated fat content increase but also palm oils are not as plastic; they are much more brittle and firm,” he said. “They become more challenging to mix out in application.” If interesterified oils are chosen to replace PHO, “saturated fat will increase and oxidative stability may suffer.”

To address this, bakers may have to adjust other ingredients in the formulation, go with a blend or interesterification to get the plasticity they need or even change the processing of the product to address the new formulation’s challenges.

Knowing more about a baker’s processing needs up front can also help suppliers develop a shortening solution that can address those needs immediately. For example, if a baker has a timed mixing process that cannot be adjusted, the R&D team knows the baker needs a shortening that will mix at the same rate and consistency as the PHO, Mr. Daniels said. “If that’s important to them, we’ll go ahead and design the system so it doesn’t coat the flour too quickly and get into an over-mix condition,” he explained.

One of the benefits of PHOs is their flexibility in their melting curves and solids content — characteristics suppliers have been trying to replicate without the partial hydrogenation process. Stratas Foods’ Flex Palm has attempted to address this by expanding the range of palm oil to make this source more flexible. While palm may be high in saturates and solid at room temperature, these oils have a narrow melting range, which makes them difficult to work with. According to Mr. Daniels, through the process of functional crystallization, Stratas Foods has made palm products more tolerant to temperature and thus easier to machine.

While the potential removal of GRAS status from a once ubiquitous ingredient may seem like a nightmare scenario, the industry won’t be approaching this issue from ground zero. “There are a lot of tools already available, and there are a lot of good solutions around,” Mr. Fine said. “It’s a matter of bakers trying them and making any adjustments that are necessary.”